More than 2,100 people have died in the 7.2-magnitude earthquake that struck Haiti on Saturday, August 14th. More than 7,000 were injured. Tens of thousands of people have been left homeless. Rescue work was hampered by heavy rains brought on by Tropical Storm Grace.
Natural disasters and human suffering have long challenged people of faith. Why would God allow such things to happen? It’s a core problem for some believers. But it also drives some people to become agnostic or atheist. A friend asked me: “Why is the world in such a mess if God really is in control? How can a loving God let thousands of people die from earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, disease, and terrorist attacks? Is God pouring out divine wrath on sinners?”
Another friend said: “Well that’s just the way God works. You should remember the story of Job in the Bible.” Job’s seven sons and three daughters were killed in a wind storm that blew down the house where they were gathered. Job was confronted with the fact that because of a natural disaster he lost all of his children. His wife said to curse God and die. But Job said, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”
Is it possible to make sense of such awful events? Philosophers refer to this kind of suffering as “natural evil” – evil that impacts the natural world itself, as opposed to “moral evil,” which results from human behavior. So why does God let disasters happen? I remember the day after Christmas 2004, when an earthquake beneath the Indian Ocean created a tsunami that caused more than 227,000 deaths and displaced millions more in Southeast Asia.
Some Christians say that natural disasters are God’s punishment for immoral behavior. They argue that a whole city can be destroyed because of its sinful ways. They point to New Orleans, hit by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They say this happened because New Orleans has long been known as one of the “most sinful cities” in the USA.
I have always found it strange when some people describe natural disasters as “acts of God.” I don’t understand God as a vindictive and hard-nosed authoritarian — a God who even had to have his own Son brutally sacrificed for our sins. Did God really want and demand that Jesus suffer terrible torture and death on the cross? In the New Testament, such an understanding of God does not resonate with the historical Jesus’ understanding of God, as his loving Father. A loving parent does not demand the torturous suffering and death of a son or daughter.
Unfortunately, some of our medieval Christian theologians did have distorted authoritarian notions about God, and they passed them on to future generations. Anselm (1033 – 1109) of Canterbury is a good example. He was a theologian and the Archbishop of Canterbury for sixteen years. Unfortunately, Anselm did not have a very benevolent understanding of God. He saw God as a nard-nosed judge and stern task-master. Anselm believed that human sin and human disobedience to God (going back to Adam and Eve) had defrauded God of the honor that God was due.That offense to God’s honor had to be compensated for and repaired. God, Anselm said, could only be satisfied by having a being of infinite greatness, God’s own Son, acting as a human on behalf of humankind, repay the debt owed to God and thereby satisfy the injury to God’s honor. In other words, God would only be happy when God’s own Son was tortured and suffered a cruel death. Strange. What an image of God. Anselm was made a “saint” and unfortunately many later Christians inherited Anselm’s theological distortions about Jesus and about God. Catholic teaching called it the “Satisfaction Theory of Atonement.”
Anselm’s vision of God was limited. I would suggest in fact that much of our own understanding of God is still greatly limited. Jesus and early Christians clearly understood God as loving and kind. That is essential. That is where we begin. As my theological mentor, Edward Schillebeeckx (1914 – 2009), often said: “Christianity began with an experience, an encounter with Jesus of Nazareth, which caused people to discover new meaning and to direct their lives in a new direction.” That new meaning and direction was anchored in forgiveness, compassion, mutual support, and collaboration. The Christian community of faith.
Today, unlike “back then,” we are very empirical. The expression “the scientific method,” with its stress on knowledge coming from sensory experience, came into popular use in the twentieth century. Some contemporary people still suggest that “science and God do not connect.” In fact, however, there have been notable scientists of the 20th century, like Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Max Born, and others, who were very open to an understanding of God in their concepts of life, the universe, and human beings. The Anglo-American mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead developed a metaphysical creativity framework for his scientific study. He suggested that God’s own process of continually emerging into reality serves as the “divine lure” that guides and sustains everything else in creation.
The US American philosopher Charles Hartshorn (1897 – 2000) and the US theologians Bernard M. Loomer (1912 – 1985), longtime Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School, and David Ray Griffin (1939), who co-founded the Center for Process Studies at the Claremont School of Theology, paved the way to what would become know as “process theism.” They understood God as omnipresent and immanent in such a way as to be intricately related to and bound up with a continually evolving creation. Many process thinkers argue that the French Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) can be included among process theologians.
Not everyone likes “process thought.” But there are indeed many contemporary theologians, Protestant and Catholic, who do. I, in fact, resonate very much with “process thought” but would stress that “process thought” is still very much IN PROCESS.
I see our earth, our universe, and humanity very much in process: still evolving. I see natural disasters as part of our earth in process but also very much a part of human responsibility or irresponsibility. Climate change, for instance, is our responsibility. Earthquakes and tsunamis are often part of our earth still in process. Although, even with earthquakes, we now know some have had human origins. A database created by geophysicists at Durham and Newcastle Universities in the United Kingdom, has tracked down 730 cases of human-made earthquakes over the last 150 years. The primary causes have been mining, heavy water locked behind reservoir dams, and conventional oil and gas extraction.
So where does prayer fit into this process perspective? The clear message of the Incarnation is that the Divine Presence is here, with us, and with all of creation. God is not simply “over there” in some far-off realm. Over the centuries, the understanding of prayer has often been somewhat narrow. Too often people have seen prayer as just an action, a behavior, a recitation, or participating in a gathering where God and Jesus are mentioned. In all religious traditions there are indeed people who appear to say lots of prayers and yet live very self-centered lives rooted in hatred, racism, and even terrorism.
Prayer first of all refers to an inner state, a state of consciousness, a loving union with God. I do pray. In good times and bad times. In prayer I express my concern for family members and friends who are going through difficult days. In my prayer I try, as well, to travel faithfully with the loving God, even when I don’t understand the twists and turns in life: in the lives of my friends and in my own life. And I realize that my understanding of God is very incomplete. My understanding is still in development, in process, even though I know so very well all the classic God doctrines.
The Jesuit philosopher and theologian Karl Rahner (1904 – 1984) stressed that people do not come to know God by solving doctrinal conundrums, proving God’s existence or engaging in an abstruse metaphysical quest. Rahner stressed the importance of Divine mystery as very simply an aspect of our humanity. Sometimes we must simply live that Mystery, with openness and calm reflection. Sometimes we limit ourselves, relying too much on rational knowing and a too narrow-minded scientific method. That Mystery, which defies description, is God. Religious doctrines can never totally explain or define that Mystery.They are simply symbolic or analogous pointers toward God. When people focus only on the pointers, however, they are getting close to idolatry.
Contemporary theologians really do have to ask how we can develop better pointers towards God. We need pointers anchored in all the complex realities and needs of our time, enabling people to believe and deal with human suffering with serenity and courage. Many of us learned about God at about the same time we also learned about Santa Claus. As we grew in awareness, our understanding of the Santa Claus phenomenon evolved and matured. But for many people their religious belief remained somewhat static and infantile.
Divine revelation is not an event that happened once in the past. It is an ongoing and creative process that requires human perception and contemplation. Revelation is a part of reality. We are called to be open, alert, and contemplative. Faith means trust, commitment, and engagement. But too often it is mistakenly understood as an intellectual assent to ecclesiastical propositions.
Today, as science itself says there is so much we still don’t know, it is also time perhaps to return to a theology that asserts less and is more open to mystery and calm and reflective exploration. This may not be easy for contemporary people so used to getting instant information with a click on a cellphone or checking their favorite website or social network.
The image of a domineering and controlling God is an archaic image. We journey today with a different and more of a traveling-companion God, even if we struggle with descriptive words about God. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1John 4:12) The true and essential work of all religions, but especially Christianity, is to help us recognize the divine image in everyone and every thing. This is the illuminating light that enlightens all things, making it possible for us to see things in their fullness.